The Poetics of Impossibility: Diamela Eltit's El Padre Mio

Article excerpt

At a certain point, it became clear that testimony contained at its core an essential lacuna; in other words, the survivor bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to. (Giorgio Agamben)

[Schizophrenics] destroy imposed speech, which is violating in its claims to proper, exclusive, totalitarian meaning ... They explode that meaning which for them had always been meaningless--in order to get back down to, and play around with, its categorical and lexical components, its underlying articulations. (Luce Irigaray)

El padre mio, Madness and the Limits of Witnessing

Diamela Eltit's (1949) avant-garde aesthetic projects, written during the years of dictatorship and postdictatorship in Chile, have received abundant critical attention that, in general, has focused on certain key elements of her poetics: marginality and exclusion, the deployment of unstable speaking positions, panoptical vigilance and the feminine, the body as a site of domination and resistance, and the use of fragmented aesthetic forms as a strategy for intervening ordered power systems. While keeping these elements in mind, I would like to focus here on Eltit's exploration of the limits of witnessing by studying her first incursion into the testimonial genre, El padre mio (1989). In a postdictatorial context dominated by manifold testimonial voices offering truths about trauma and political violence under Pinochet, Eltit's book urges us to consider alternative ways of reading testimony. Her transcription and framing (in her prologue) of the broken poetics of a schizophrenic, homeless vagabond offers the reader an image of testimony not as a simple collection of facts or data, but as a literary or metaphorical constellation of meanings that symbolically reflect a moment of socio-political and subjective crisis. I am interested in how Eltit's textual project avoids transparency at every turn, forcing readers to understand testimony's layered meanings as well as the very difficulties of communicating traumatic experience--difficulties which, as I will argue, she transforms into a personal poetics of the impossibility of speaking trauma. After a few words of introduction to contextualize Eltit's project, I will organize my discussion around three key questions. First, how does El padre mio dramatize the tension between the possibility and impossibility of speaking trauma? Second, where are we to locate the notion of "truth" in relation to the loco's discourse? (1) And third, who bears witness in El padre mio?

More than thirty years after the military coup of September 11, 1973, Chile has made great strides in coming to terms with its traumatic past. Certain recent developments, including the Lagos administration's 2004 publication of the Informe Valech (a report containing over 30,000 testimonial accounts that detail for the first time the Pinochet regime's use of torture as a state-sponsored practice), the attainment of justice in various landmark human rights cases, the inauguration of Michelle Bachelet in 2006, the prosecution of the former dictator and his family following the Riggs Bank scandal, and a series of recent reforms to Pinochet's 1980 constitution, have all proven positive signs. At the same time, many perpetrators still walk the streets unpunished, more than 1000 former Allende supports remain "disappeared," and many competing narratives about the Pinochet years still circulate in Chilean society.

Though today debate and dissent over historical memory are possible in Chile, this was much less the case during the dictatorship when opposing voices were silenced through torture, censorship, exile and disappearance. (2) With the dawn of the transition in 1990, the question of who should bear witness took on vital importance. We can recall the dispute that ensued in the wake of the Aylwin administration's (1990-1994) Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose mandate was to report only on "the most serious violations of human rights resulting in death and disappearances" (Rettig et al. …